Category: Energy (page 1 of 2)

State of the Union Address on climate

February 3, 2014

Julie Rohde

On the night that millions of Americans in the Southeast were hit with the snowstorm of the decade, President Obama addressed the nation: “Climate change is a fact.” Winter Storm Leon (as named by the Weather Channel) wreaked havoc in a part of the nation that rarely experiences this level of extreme winter weather. Horror stories of people trapped in their cars in Atlanta, Georgia took over national news headlines. Perhaps Atlanta and other southern cities were ill prepared for this disastrous weather, but nonetheless, this type of weather is atypical for this part of the country.

traffick-600x450

http://img2-2.timeinc.net/people/i/2014/sandbox/news/140210/weather/traffick-600×450.jpg

Unfortunately, extreme weather patterns are no longer uncommon in many parts of the nation. From cases of severe drought in the Midwest to the decimation caused by Hurricane Sandy in the North East and the greater frequency of tornado occurrences- scientists are claiming that many of these events are human induced. In September 2013, NOAA published a report titled, “Explaining Extreme Events of 2012 from a Climate Perspective”. The report cites several examples of extreme weather patterns and attributes the changes in climate to human activity. Specifically, scientists explored the high July 2012 temperatures of the Midwest in relation to decreased precipitation and increased solar radiation. Carbon emissions and inefficient land use have contributed to the temperature changes experienced in this part of the nation.

In regards to climate change, President Obama was very blatant in discussing the urgency of a safer environment for future generations. His brief recommendations include stronger regulation of carbon emissions and innovative technology to support sustainable energy sources. In order for this sense of urgency to resonate with the American people and a very polarized congress, Obama used the protection of future generations as a motivating factor. He stated, “And when our children’s children look us in the eye and ask if we did all we could to leave them a safer, more stable world, with new sources of energy, I want us to be able to say yes, we did.” This quote simply explains that it is imperative for our generation to limit the footprint we leave behind for our children. Every person is responsible for how their actions shape the climate and environment.

source:  http://a.abcnews.com/images/Politics/AP_state_union10_ml_140128_16x9_992.jpg

source: http://a.abcnews.com/images/Politics/AP_state_union10_ml_140128_16x9_992.jpg

Finding or creating alternative and sustainable energy sources is one of the largest factors in reversing climate change that is induced by human action. Our national dependence on fossil fuels has caused complete decimation of ecosystems and the burning of these fuels contributes to ozone pollution. I believe there are two main entities that hold responsibility in expediting the process of finding innovative energy sources.

First, the United States military is arguably the most crucial stakeholder in alternative energy sources. From a tactical perspective, the increased frequency of natural disasters puts a significant strain on national security. As the military has become more responsible for first response aid work, they have a stake in preventing huge natural disasters. If alternative energy sources could limit extreme weather patterns that are exacerbated by carbon emissions, the military has an incentive to investigate these alternatives. Furthermore, the oil industry is still largely concentrated on international grounds with unstable governments. National security also becomes a concern in international oil trade. The military would like to prevent overseas conflicts caused by oil dependence. With the current adequate funding and elite research teams within the military, the race to find alternative energy could likely reside in military efforts.

The second main entity that will be responsible for innovative energy technology is university institutions. Similar to the military, elite American universities are equipped with research facilities and faculty who are passionate about climate change. Competition between universities will create a market incentive for the best alternative energy source. A tool that could be helpful in accelerating this process would be a competition with a lump sum prize. Something like the Google X-Prize foundation, which offers $30 million for the development of a spacecraft to explore the surface of the moon, could benefit the energy industry. In fact, President Obama’s State of the Union addressed the use of Google and other corporations in aiding the implementation of innovative technologies.

How many more disastrous weather storms will it take for climate change to become a top priority in the United States? Some progress has been made to alleviate climate change.  However, the current climate action agenda is very limiting. Our current energy situation must change! In order to protect our future generations as Obama has prompted us to do, the US military and America’s universities will be the primary agents in discovering alternative energy sources.

 

Sources:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/01/28/state-of-the-union-text_n_4590833.html?1390961728&ncid=edlinkusaolp00000009

http://www.firstcoastnews.com/story/news/local/georgia/2014/01/29/winter-storm-leon-leaves-thousands-stranded-in-atlanta/5006663/

http://www.ametsoc.org/2012extremeeventsclimate.pdf

http://www.googlelunarxprize.org/prize-details/why-google-lunar-xprize

 

Fossil Fuel Divestment

I turn the lights on in the bathroom and a slight uneasiness settles over me. I go to Uncle Harry’s, at first excited to see the avocados available for purchase, but ultimately decide against it since they were grown in California. I need to buy shampoo and am in a hurry so I drive my car instead of walking, though I silently chastise myself for not planning ahead better.

Source: https://www.missioninvestors.org/events/is-fossil-fuel-divestment-right-for-your-institution

I consider myself an environmentalist, however most days I do not feel I have earned that title. It can be very exhausting when everyday things most people don’t think twice about fundamentally challenge my convictions. Sometimes I make the decision that is best for the environment and sometimes I give into the ease of this carbon-powered life. Looking around though, I realize that many of these decisions are not truly free decisions for me or for anyone else to make, especially when it comes to energy.

65% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions are a product of burning fossil fuels in order to generate electricity, heat buildings, power vehicles, etc (1). We all use and depend on fossil fuels on a daily basis. However, the uncomfortable truth is that if we intend to limit the warming of the planet to the IPCC (International Panel on Climate Change) recommended 2°C, 60-80% of the current fossil fuel reserves held by the top fossil fuel companies must remain in the ground (2).

These sobering facts have helped launch fossil fuel divestment campaigns at over 500 colleges and universities across the nation (3). Thus far the majority response from administrators and university presidents at the country’s most prestigious academic institutions such as Harvard, Cornell and Brown, has been “No.” (4)

The most oft cited reasons that university presidents have given in support of their decision not to divest are 1) if universities sell their shares in the top 200 fossil fuel companies they lose their ability to influence those companies through shareholder advocacy, 2) it is hypocritical to divest from fossil fuels when we continue to rely on them in our daily lives, 3) divesting from fossil fuel companies could hurt the endowments’ returns.

In response to the first argument about shareholder advocacy, while it can be an effective way of creating change in regards to fossil fuel companies, their entire business model is based around finding, refining and burning more and more fossil fuels. In order to avoid climate disaster we need to see a major shift in how we produce energy. Shareholder advocacy might work for smaller changes such as fairer labor practices, but we need to send a message to fossil fuel companies that it is socially irresponsible for them to continue operating as they do at a very fundamental level.

Some people have argued that fossil fuel companies have made positive steps by investing in renewable energy projects. However, if you look at the numbers, the top fossil fuel companies have committed a very small portion of their budgets to developing renewable energy, and some have already started pulling out of renewable energy projects (5). But really the bottom line is, as long as fossil fuel companies continue to seek out new fossil fuel reserves, they are threatening the future of us all.

The second argument regarding the hypocrisy of divesting while we still depend on fossil fuels is quite flawed. Yes it is unfortunate that we are so dependent on fossil fuels, but we need to start somewhere. Fossil fuel companies are not going to change out of the goodness of their hearts. They need to be shown that people are serious about demanding change.

In our highly market-based economy, money is a powerful force. Removing one’s money from a company is a great way to demonstrate you do not support that company’s practices in a language they will understand loud and clear. Plus, it frees up money to invest in renewable energy projects and research to help speed along the energy transition!

The third argument that divesting from fossil fuels could hurt the endowment is incredibly short sighted. Pressure is already mounting against the fossil fuel companies, particularly the coal industry. The percentage of electricity produced in the US by burning coal is shrinking fast and coal assets are decreasing in price (6). As divestment campaigns continue to spread and gain traction, it is not unreasonable to think that the same fate awaits oil and gas, causing some financial analysts to warn of an impending “carbon bubble” (7).

Additionally as the demand for environmentally responsible investment portfolios increase, it will become easier and easier for major institutions to divest. Furthermore divesting from fossil fuels has the potential to improve endowment returns as a number of divested portfolios have enjoyed increased returns as compared to a typical portfolio including fossil fuels (8).

No one is saying that divesting from fossil fuels is going to be easy, but I can’t think of a better reason to try hard than to prevent massive climate disruption.

References:
(1) http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/files/2013/05/ecofys-world-ghg-emissions-flowchart.png
(2) http://www.carbontracker.org/wastedcapital
(3) http://campaigns.gofossilfree.org/
(4) http://www.harvard.edu/president/fossil-fuels
http://brown.edu/about/administration/president/2013-10-27-coal-divestment-update
http://www.sustainablecampus.cornell.edu/blogs/news/posts/op-ed-from-president-skorton-divestment-a-complicated-issue-for-universities
http://www.middlebury.edu/newsroom/archive/524638/node/459563
http://www.swarthmore.edu/board-of-managers/an-open-letter-of-divestment-.xml
(5) http://www.bizjournals.com/albuquerque/blog/morning-edition/2013/04/bp-wants-to-sell-its-wind-farm-business.html
(6) http://www.asyousow.org/health_safety/coal.shtml
(7) http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2013/apr/19/carbon-bubble-financial-crash-crisis
(8) http://631nj1ki9k11gbkhx39b3qpzua.wpengine.netdna-cdn.com/files/2013/06/institutional-pathways-final-061813.pdf

With a Side of E. coli and 50 Gallons of Water

On egg farms where male chicks are useless, millions of birds are simply thrown away in dumpsters like the one above where they die under the weight of other birds. [http://www.flickr.com/photos/farmsanctuary1/2162605201/]

By Kerri Devine

As the winter holidays kick into full swing, we find our dining room tables disappearing beneath stockpiles of decadent dishes.  Grandma’s honey-glazed ham, Mom’s famous hot crab dip, and Aunt Pat’s prize-winning apple pie have all been trademarks of the holiday spread for years and will most likely stay on the menu for years to come.  We find comfort in the food we know and are oftentimes reluctant to make changes.  Occasionally, the appetizer menu will accept a new recipe and the task of preparing the main dish will rotate, but we are ultimately creatures of habit.  Should one relative refrain from eating animal products, she would be labeled the ‘hippie’ of the family.  And if she were to suggest that all meat be removed from the table entirely? Hogwash.

 

And yet, the choice may not be ours to make perhaps within the next generation if we continue to rely on concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) to provide our meals.  The food we eat is entirely unsustainable, plagued with antibiotic resistant microbes, and fueling global warming.  There needs to be a fundamental shift in the way America feeds itself, and I do not subscribe to the belief that a cultural revolution will be the impetus for change.  Strong political leadership must step into action and help open the eyes of the American people to the dangers of our factory farm dependency.

 

A factory farm is defined as a large-scale farming enterprise in which hundreds of thousands of animals are bred in extremely close quarters.  The phenomenon was born out of the convenient alignment of the Green Revolution with the need to feed a booming population in the mid twentieth century.  Coupled with increasingly meat-rich diets, factory farms have blossomed.  Their prevalence is misleading however, as the problems associated with these operations are many.  Let’s have a look at the facts.

 

  • Factory-farmed beef requires twice as much fossil fuel energy input as pasture-reared beef.
  • Livestock farming accounts for around 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions – more than the global transport sector.
  • Livestock farming produces 65% of global nitrous oxide emissions (which are 298 times more potent than carbon dioxide emissions).
  • Every 1 kg of meat produced on a CAFO requires an input of 90 bathtubs worth of water.

-http://www.bis.gov.uk/assets/foresight/docs/food-and-farming/drivers/dr4-energy-and-food-system.pdf

What’s more is that the industry is incredibly wasteful.  Despite labeling itself as an efficient and modern means of providing meat to the masses, there are many hidden costs associated with standard operation.  One large farm produces more raw waste than an entire U.S. city, with around a third of the nitrogen and phosphorous entering the country’s freshwaters coming from US livestock farming operations.  Pig slurry is 75 times more polluting than raw domestic sewage, and is often concentrated in extremely small areas near aquifers and groundwater supplies.  Overuse of antibacterials and hormones results in bioaccumulation.  According to a February 2011 FDA report, nearly 29 million pounds of antimicrobials were sold in 2009 for both therapeutic and non-therapeutic use for all farm animal species.

Those 29 million pounds of drugs end up in our food, our drinking water, and the land.  This heavy reliance and abuse of antibiotics is allowing for resistant strains of bacteria to proliferate through the food chain.  In the first nationwide studyof meat on supermarket shelves, it was found that 47% was infected with strains of Staphylococcus aureus, with more than half of those resistant to antibacterial drugs.

The facts are startling, and yet as consumers we tend to find ways to rationalize away anything that disturbs us.  For me, it was a simple choice to switch to a vegetarian lifestyle, but then again- I was the kid who fed her chicken and steak to the dog under the table anyway.  My family, while supportive of my choice, has no interest in shying away from their chicken wings or prime rib.  They simply say, “Good for you, but I like meat too much.”  They have no interest in buying grass-fed meat or even organic food, which they label as a pricey scam.  Consumers subscribe to the mentality of “what I don’t know won’t kill me” and thus choose to eat their disease-ridden, drug-stuffed protein in ignorant bliss.

As a result, we need to take the choice away from the consumer.  Just as consumers can now no longer purchase products with CFCs as a result of protecting the ozone, consumers should no longer be able to buy factory-farmed meat in its current state.  There needs to be major reform of the industry if we want to continue eating meat for generations to come.  Very few industries enjoy the luxury of complete unregulated supply-and-demand enterprise from which CAFOs benefit.  The meat industry capitalizes on its many exemptions to abuse its resources and the animals it rears.  Despite that animal cruelty is illegal, most states have complete exemptions for animals meant for human consumption.  These exemptions need to go.  There needs to be more transparency from the industry, with explicit labels on food describing how the animal was reared, what drugs it received, and how it was killed.  Grocery stores that choose to buy from local, non-CAFO suppliers should receive government subsidies and incentives.  We need government support to enable sustainable farms to succeed and accelerate the inevitable destruction of CAFOs.

 As we take time this holiday season to share in family and food, it is important that we think twice about the food we pick up from the super market.  Do we really want to feed our loved ones global-warming causing soups of hormones and drugs? Support the local farms in your area in the spirit of the holidays, and help change the way America eats.

Have a Beer, Support Sustainability

by Thomas Nailen E. Nailen Jr.

My hometown of Asheville, North Carolina is a city known for many things, not the least of which its beer.  Asheville was voted Beer City USA in 2012 for its fourth consecutive title because of the exceptional diversity of breweries in Asheville and just how good they are.  The title isn’t likely to go anywhere else soon because two of the big dogs in the craft-brewing game are moving in town: Sierra Nevada and New Belgium.  What is so impressive about these two breweries is not just that they are consistently ranked highly as top craft breweries in America (nos. 2 and 3 in the Brewers Association top 50), but that they display incredible commitment to environmental sustainability.

Sierra Nevada, located in Chico, CA, is a leader in solar technology implementation with over 10,000 photovoltaic cells in two fields producing 2,635,869 kWh—19% of the massive facility’s energy needs.  Two of the facility’s buildings, the daycare and rail facilities, run completely off solar energy produced by their solar fields.  Sierra Nevada’s total solar system is one of the largest privately owned solar systems in the country with plans on expansion in the near future.  Sierra Nevada produces another 48% of its total energy demand with 4 hydrogen fuel cells—the first system of its kind installed by an American Brewery.  Waste heat generated by the cells is recycled into the brewing process make the facility 15% more efficient.  From installing large windows to maximize natural light, to using rail for transportation when possible and biodiesel when not, to having an onsite water treatment facility, to capturing and recycling CO2 from the fermentation process, to maintaining an employee garden, Sierra Nevada’s sustainability efforts have proven the company to be as leader in the private sustainability field. Oh, and did I mention they make beer too?

Sierra Nevada’s rooftop solar fields

New Belgium is a similar craft brewery located in Fort Collins, CO with an equally impressive sustainability report.   New Belgium installed a 264,000 kWh photovoltaic system in 2010—the largest privately owned solar array in Colorado at the time providing 3% of their total energy needs.  They recycle methane produced during the water treatment process in their on site facility to a CHP engine that produces up to 15% of their electrical needs.  In 1999 New Belgium became the first brewery in America to purchase 100% of its electricity needs from wind when the employee-owners voted to purchase wind electricity from a Wyoming wind farm at 157% the price they were paying for fossil fuel based electricity.  Since their investment, the city of Fort Collins erected additional turbines specifically to supply energy to the brewery, becoming the first electric utility to offer wind power in the state.

These sustainability minded breweries are a perfect fit in Asheville.  Because of its location in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Asheville has always been sustainability minded, but recent initiatives have shown renewed effort including the 2.5% carbon footprint reduction last year (part of a yearly 2% reduction plan to reduce Asheville’s carbon footprint by 80% by 2050) and mandating that all new municipal buildings will be LEED  (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified.  Aside from its environmental efforts, Asheville is also called a beertopia, with the highest breweries per capita nationally, 4 beer festivals, countless beer tours, and its 4-year Beer City USA streak.

So what is it about mountain towns across the country, sustainability, and beer?  I don’t know.  Maybe it’s the creative and passionate people the mountains attract.  Maybe hiking through the natural mountain scenery evokes a passion for the as well as the deep thirst for a cold beer.  Maybe you can discuss it during one of Asheville’s weekly Asheville Green Drinks where Ashvillians and travelers gather downtown to share a drink while discussing environmental issues, hearing from top environmental speakers, and networking to see their green ideas come to life.  All I know is that the efforts from breweries like Sierra Nevada and New Belgium have shown the craft-brewing industry has separated itself as a leader in our nation’s green movement. These breweries are doing the little things like turning the lights off and the big things like investing in solar and wind energy at their own expense as well as harboring the environmental community with programs like New Belgium’s Team Wonderbike and Sierra Nevada’s Wild Rivers campaign.  These brewers have said yes to sustainability, given to the environmental community, and given environmentally aware consumers reason to sit back and support the craft-brewing industry with a nice tall brew.

STOP Keystone XL!

(Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty)

Say No, Obama

Today, concerned citizens led by environmentalists from 350.org, Sierra Club, Greenpeace US, etc., will rally in Washington D.C. to protest the President to reject the Keystone XL pipeline. Just a year ago, President Obama denied TransCanada, a Canadian oil and gas company, permission to build a 1700 mile stretch of underground pipeline from Alberta, Canada to the Gulf Coast of Texas, on the basis that it needed to fully assess both health and environmental impacts of the project. Two months ago, TransCanada resubmitted its proposal providing an alternative route for its pipeline, one that “minimize(s) the disturbance of land and sensitive resources” in Nebraska. By early next year, President Obama will make his final decision regarding this permit, and this time, pundits predict, he won’t have a compelling reason to stop Keystone XL.

The Keystone XL pipeline would traverse seven Mid-western states, crossing sensitive ecosystems. Environmentalists fear toxic spills from the pipeline into waterways and habited land. In 2010, over a million gallons of diluted bitumen, a mix of tar sands bitumen and liquid chemicals, spilled into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River due to a leaking Canadian pipeline. Diluted bitumen, or dilbit, is not only far more difficult to clean up than traditional oil, but it contains chemical additives, increasing its toxicity. In fact, it has been over two years and the cleanup of the Kalamazoo river system is still incomplete. Environmentalists worry about excess amounts of waste water generated during tar sands’ extraction process. They worry about the environmental injustices against Canadian indigenous populations and against Americans residing along the pipeline. But the biggest concern for environmentalists is increasing our dependence on a nonrenewable energy source that releases 3x  more CO2 emissions than crude oil. Although President Obama’s Copenhagen pledges for carbon emission reduction were not passed by Congress, his policies for supporting developments in natural gas, high fuel efficiency standards, and other emission reduction technologies did nonetheless put us on track for achieving those targets. But if he approves Keystone XL, we backtrack on the progress made on carbon emission reductions. Based on a report by the Canadian environmental ministry, by 2020, greenhouse gases from the oil and gas sector will have increased by one third of 2005 levels due to the extraction of tar sands, despite other reductions.

Despite the wake-up call from Hurricane Sandy, with no currently effective national climate change policy, President Obama likely will not deny Keystone XL on the basis of carbon emission reductions. Duke Professor and former American Diplomat Stephen R. Kelly argues that Keystone XL pipeline should be approved as it will increase our energy security. But the U.S has significantly decreased its reliance on “unstable” oil in the past decade, from 27% of our oil imports coming from the Persian Gulf in 1993 to just 18% in 2010. In fact, for the first time since 1949, U.S became a net exporter of oil. And with its domestic oil and natural gas production, U.S is on the path to becoming “the world’s top energy producer by 2020”. So regardless of whether Keystone XL is approved or not, we have firmly secured our energy resources. Moreover, misconceptions that Keystone XL pipeline will reduce American oil prices due to increased oil supply available to U.S consumers continue to be circulated. However, allowing Canadian private companies supply access through the U.S does not equate to American rights to that oil. If profitable to export its oil to other foreign markets like China’s, now accessible through the Gulf, Canadian oil companies will rightly do so.

Move forward

Arguments for and against Keystone XL have been played out in the past, in the 1960s over the Trans-Alaska pipeline and then in the 1990s over oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). Environmentalists’ rhetoric stresses health and environmental damage while industrialists depict it as critical for the economy and decreasing foreign energy dependency. But this time, rather than debating over these repeatedly unresolved arguments, we need to raise alarm on the implications of Keystone XL. Keystone XL sets a major precedent on how our nation will address climate change moving forward. Despite numerous bills issued in Congress, there remains a perpetual gridlock on the passage of any substantial climate change policy.We’ve only begun to realize that we need to take a whole different approach to reducing our GHG emissions. For example, President Obama’s CAFE standards have been major successful climate change initiatives under the pretense of “reducing our dependence on foreign oil”. Framing climate change measures under energy policy, by improving energy efficiency or investing in renewable sources, might just be our saving grace. But if President Obama signs the Keystone XL permit, he in effect curtails most arguments for investing in costly but necessary renewable projects. If passed, we get on the path that divests resources away from renewable energy, delaying critical carbon-free solutions. To keep moving forward as a nation in regards to reducing our impact on the global climate and our future, we must first to stop Keystone XL.

 

Equal-Opportunity Energy: The Lopsided State of US Energy Subsidies

Source: Environmental Law Institute

Three of this election cycle’s biggest catchphrases belong to energy. Candidates on both sides of the aisle speak of the need for a “level playing field,” an “all-of-the-above energy strategy,” and a plan that does not “pick winners and losers.” While they may agree on the rhetoric, they usually don’t agree on what the terms mean in practice. One of the areas where the two candidates have significant policy differences relates to subsidies – the assistance given by the government to energy sectors, either by a direct award/grant or tax breaks/deductions. Should renewable energy get government money to help it along? Fossil fuels? Both? How much?

A simple and alluring answer to the “level playing field” issue (actually, to all 3 catchphrases) is, “let’s get rid of all energy subsidies.” If neither side gets help or advantages from the government right now, it must be fair, right? Unfortunately, this is akin to building a soccer pitch on a slope where one side has been built up over many years. Even if there’s no soil being added to the hill right now, it doesn’t change the fact that one half of the field will start off much higher than the other.

Let’s take a look at the numbers. Averaged over the lifetime of a subsidy, fossil fuels receive $4.86 billion annually; nuclear, $3.50 billion; biofuels, $1.08 billion; and all other renewables, $0.37 billion. Somewhat pathetically, the most renewables have ever received in government assistance is still less than oil and gas did during the Great Depression. The difference in subsidy amount is also compounded by the fact that fossil fuels have been receiving government money for almost a century, but renewables weren’t significantly subsidized until the Energy Policy Act of 1992.

In a balance tipped so far to one side, how do you try to correct it? Well, for starters, you maintain the funds going into renewable energy, which is a great example of the types of dynamic newly developing technologies that subsidies are intended to help spur. The renewable energy industry grew at a rate of about 11% from 2003-2010 – well above the national average of 4.2%. The wind industry alone supports 80,000 jobs spread throughout the US and has an annual growth rate of 35%.  Yet it appears that the major subsidy that helps the wind industry – the production tax credit, or PTC – will not be extended by Congress before it expires at the end of this year. The PTC has been allowed to expire three times in the past and wind installations dropped 73-93% in the year following  – with large job losses. The solar industry’s major subsidy, the investment tax credit, also expired at the end of 2011.

Meanwhile, subsidies for fossil fuels – which are permanent parts of the tax code and do not have to be renewed – come in each year for an industry that made a collective $137 billion in profits in 2011. The industry can hardly be considered developing, and it’s therefore appropriate to ask if corporations should be taking tax credits for investments in energy they’d be making anyway when federal assistance for renewable energy is being cut.

Congress must take a serious look at the role and purpose of subsidies in the energy industry when tax reform comes up, most likely in the 113th Congress. They should continue to provide support for developing technologies in the renewable energy industry, while revisiting the effectiveness of subsidies for the mature fossil fuel industry and cutting any wasteful handouts. A “level playing field” won’t be created by designing better catchphrases in debates, but by politicians who are willing to break out the shovels, get a bit dirty, and start filling in the lopsided market themselves.

Energy Independence: An Impossible Campaign Promise

Source: Americanprogress.org

As the 2012 Presidential Election nears, energy and producing more of it have become hotly debated topics by both candidates, and each candidate has expressed desires to make America energy independent. Obama’s and Romney’s energy platforms revolve around increased extraction and use of domestic resources and stabilization of gas prices, and they hope to see a significant reduction if not complete halt on oil and gas imports in the future. With each candidate touting their abilities to achieve or at least move closer towards energy independence with effective energy policies, voters are deceived into thinking that energy independence is attainable and something America should strive for.

What is Energy Independence and why are we striving for it?

To achieve energy independence, America must be able to meet energy demands with resources recovered domestically; however, Americans are currently dependent on foreign sources for oil largely from the Middle East. Energy policies attempt to increase the United State’s energy security by moving the US towards energy independence by increasing drilling for oil and gas and providing economic incentives for the development of renewable energy technology.

The United States is aiming for energy independence because we are pressed into a vulnerable position in which we rely on the Middle East and to a lesser extent Venezuela to supply oil for our growing energy demands, and the US is forced to prioritize interests regarding these countries in trade relations and foreign policy. Reliance on foreign supply leaves the United States susceptible to embargos and other barriers to access caused by political conflicts, and the United States must continue investing in the peace and stability of these nations, which takes funds and effort away from use for problems in our own country. Thus, the administration’s drive for energy independence results from the desire to minimize interest and interference in those foreign countries, but do we have enough oil and other resources reserved to become energy independent?

Current United States Energy Production and Use

Currently, 80% of the energy the United States produces comes from domestic sources with large portions of energy coming from coal and nuclear power to provide electricity, and about 10% of energy comes from renewables. Over 90% of the transportation sector relies on liquid fuels, mostly petroleum, and much of this fuel comes from the Middle East. The US consumes 22% of the world’s available oil and produces only 9% of the world’s output.

The US has some of the greatest coal and natural gas supplies in the world and has numerous nuclear power plants, and achieving energy independence seems like an achievable objective. So achievable that both candidates use the potential to be energy independent to attract voters who believe that by doing so the US will avoid conflict with other countries and reduce gas prices. However, those sources are used primarily to generate electricity, and increasing drilling in the United States will not supply enough oil to power the transportation sector long term.

Is energy independence necessary or even possible?

While there are benefits to developing domestic energy infrastructure and resources—supporting our national economy and creating jobs—it is unlikely and absolutely not necessary to become energy independent within the next president’s term or in the near future. Candidates state that becoming energy independent will lower gas prices; however, global markets set the price of oil, and oil operations in the United States have done and will do little to cause gas prices to decrease. Essentially the government is helpless to lower gas prices. Currently, while foreign supplies are available and affordable it does not make sense economically to become energy independent, and attempts to go energy independent could even result in higher prices to pay for infrastructure development and operation costs.

While it is easy to get caught up in what each candidate promises to do for the country during the presidential debates, campaign speeches, and platforms, what Obama and Romney say must not be taken at face value. Voters have to realize that the programs and reforms they suggest may not be the best solution to current problems. Improving energy security and increasing supplies of energy resources domestically are objectives the United States should aim to achieve because of threats to energy security in the Middle East, declining supply, and ever-increasing demands for energy; however, energy independence is not possible for the United States and should not be a promise made by our country’s leaders.

Global Sanctuary or Global Gold Mine?: The pros and cons of exploration in the Arctic region

Source: http://cominganarchy.com/2007/08/12/the-arctic-cold-war-the-canadian-perspective/

We have all heard various proclamations associated with global warming: “Save the polar bears!” “The ice is melting as lightening speeds!” Well, last time I checked the polar bears are still alive and thermal wear is required to visit the North Pole.

Well, imagine packing your parka to vacation in the Bahamas or paying for the extra month of air conditioning you need to stave off the humidity in southern California? There have, in fact, been noticeable changes since the start of the global warming campaign. With these changes come both opportunities for natural gas and oil exploration as well as health and environmental risks. Given the pros and cons of different approaches, would it be irresponsible to allow cautious, but still profit-driven, oil drilling in the Arctic? I believe so.

According to a study by NASA, the thickest and oldest parts of the Arctic caps are melting at the fastest rate that they have been since 1980. This part of the ice that survives at least two summers is called “multi-year ice”. This ice has been melting at a rate of -15.1% per decade in recent years. The size of the area of ice coverage hit an all-time low in 2008, rose for a little while, and then hit the second-lowest size in 2012.

Environmental and Life Risks

The Arctic regulates weather patterns around the globe. The wind currents take warm air up to the Arctic and return at a cooled temperature. With a non-uniform melting of the ice, these wind patterns can be disrupted and result in “random” weather patterns. The Natural Resources Defense Council predicts that “climate change will worsen smog and causes plants to produce more pollen pollution, increasing respiratory health threats”. Lastly, the polar bears of course. The Arctic provides a home to a plethora of delicate animal species that depend on the frozen tundra for life.

Oil Drilling

The melting also presents some unique opportunities for oil and natural gas exploration. Many precautions are taken in the business of oil drilling and they seem to be paying off. Approximately 300-500 oil spills occur per year, but they only account for 12% of the oil that ends up in the ocean. In fact, only 0.001% of the oil that is transported is spilled.

Despite these impressive statistics, oil drilling still involves heat. Ice must be forcibly melted in order to clear a path for the oil rigs. During the extraction process, water containing a harmful toxin known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) gets removed with the oil and thrown overboard back in to the sea. At low concentrations, the toxins cause birth defects, but at high concentrations they can be lethal.

Black Gold Mine

What drives my concern about diving into the Arctic is that it is a black gold mine for oil and natural gas. The people interested in the region are being driven by money. A recent article in the New York Times discussed the race to carve up the Arctic. With the UN Convention’s Law of the Sea of 1982 in place, ownership of many of the waters and continental shelves in the area have been given to bordering countries such as Greenland, Iceland, Canada, and Russia. The article brought attention to China’s obvious efforts to build good relations with these Arctic States by investing in the nation’s economy and other endeavors. This fervor has alarmed Western nations concerned about China’s intentions beyond natural resources considering the region is an effective launching pad to a number of different nations. The area also opens the door to new war strategies that involve traversing the Arctic sea and using the ice to one’s advantage. Between money and war, the environmental prestige of the Arctic would not stand a chance.

Economists are not in definite agreement, but there is evidence shown that increasing the domestic production of oil would only result in a 3¢ increase over a span of 10-20 years at best. By harvesting 3 years worth of oil in the Arctic, we very well may be doing more damage than we can foresee at this time. Rebuilding ice is not as simple as planting a tree. Arctic ice melting is more analogous to the ozone layer depletion: easy to do and hard to fix. We cannot fight Mother Nature. There could be more Hurricane Katrinas or California wildfires that plague our nation as a result of exacerbation in that area. Until more reliable prediction models are put in to place, I would not feel comfortable taking the region for granted in any capacity

References

1)    http://www.google.com/imgres?um=1&hl=en&biw=1366&bih=667&tbm=isch&tbnid=fpV-VDjUVq9vuM:&imgrefurl=http://cominganarchy.com/2007/08/12/the-arctic-cold-war-the-canadian-perspective/&docid=NxvPLx1mmHl8KM&imgurl=http://cominganarchy.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2007/08/arctic.JPG&w=405&h=300&ei=N9x2UIdVkor2BNS3gJAD&zoom=1&iact=rc&dur=407&sig=111949141478926398600&page=3&tbnh=141&tbnw=184&start=44&ndsp=24&ved=1t:429,r:10,s:44,i:314&tx=68&ty=47

2)    http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/row/IB95010.pdf

3)    http://www.livescience.com/4979-oil-drilling-risks-rewards.html

4)    http://www.nasa.gov/topics/earth/features/thick-melt.html

5)    http://www.nrdc.org/health/climate/nc.asp

6)    http://savethearctic.org/en

7)    Rosenthal, E. (2012, September 19). Race Is On as Ice Melt Reveals Arctic Treasures. New York Times, p. A14.

Climate Change Reality for the United States

Source: http://www.4cleanfuels.com/fuels4.php

Written by Nathaniel Berger

During the past several years, the United States has experience numerous events of extreme weather patterns ranging from massive wildfires in Colorado to the 4th warmest winter in U.S. history.[1] Many parts of the country experienced seventy degree days in December.

Ninety-seven percent of scientists say man-made climate change is real.[2] However, the remaining 3% of scientists are quite loud in their efforts to deny climate change. Those who deny the occurrence of climate change take the scientific truth, and mislead, deny, and suppress it so much that little progress can be made. The media further exacerbate the problem when they give each side equal air time, insinuating whether intentionally or not, that these messages are both equally supported and valid.

However, despite the 3% of scientists’ denial, climate change is happening, and the U.S. needs to do its part to lower carbon emissions. The European Union and many other nations around the world have made pledges through the Kyoto Protocol and other initiatives to lower carbon emissions through renewable energy creation, carbon offsets, and more. Germany’s solar energy accounts for nearly a 1/3 of the nation’s energy.[3]

Unfortunately, the U.S. has not embarked on such a serious renewable energy path, refusing to join the Kyoto Protocol or even establish a national energy policy. While many states have set forth renewable energy standards, these acts are insufficient as the U.S. is one of the top carbon emitters.

Despite the minimal efforts made in the United States to reduce carbon emissions, the U.S. experienced the lowest carbon emissions in 20 years in the first half of 2012.[4] Many are claiming that the U.S. has finally decided to truly work to reduce carbon emissions. Sadly, I think that these people are far too optimistic. Few scientists actually think that these reductions in carbon emissions will last.

When the CO2 emissions reductions were analyzed, researchers found that 43% of the decline was a result of the mild winter that much of the U.S. experienced, 21% of the decline was attributed to coal-to-gas generation, and only a measly 6% was left for increased wind generation.[5] In terms of weather conditions, the mild winter is not likely to be a recurring theme in coming years, and even if it is, it will likely bring with it increasingly hot summers that will require more energy consumption through increased air conditioning.

While natural gas usage has increased significantly, the switch to natural gas is only a temporary fix for carbon emissions. First, the switch to natural gas is largely a result of economic factors that have resulted in shockingly low natural gas prices. According to Michael McElroy, Professor of Environmental Studies at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, the impact of the decreased price of natural gas was most prevalent in the East South Central and South Atlantic regions of the U.S. because those regions have the highest level of electricity generation from coal.[6] Few economists expect these low prices to remain long term, which may result in a small comeback of coal. However, McElroy does argue that if the United States wanted to continue to economically impact the relative price of electricity generation between coal and natural gas, a carbon tax of only $5 per ton of CO2 would make a significant difference in electricity generation. The U.S. would save 31 million tons of CO2, and the price of electricity would rise only minimally.[7] I think this solution is perfectly reasonable especially when one considers our growing national debt. However, it is unlikely to be part of any tax reform due to the unwillingness of major political figures to put the environment and climate change on their political agendas.

Second, natural gas brings its own environmental impacts. Natural gas obtained through hydraulic fracturing is associated with water contamination and earthquakes. Many states such as, Ohio and Pennsylvania, are already noticing some of these impacts. Because of the fast-paced nature of the industry, it has been difficult for many states to develop the regulatory system fast enough to keep up with the production goals of companies interested in hydraulic fracturing. North Carolina’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources has worked to assess the potential impacts. Currently, they are recommending that with the proper guidelines and safety regulations that hydraulic fracturing can occur safely with minimal environmental impact. The only problem is that they are still unsure of what the potential impacts are, the size of those impacts, and how quickly they may impact human health.[8]

Natural gas will not lower carbon emissions sufficiently to prevent continued climate change. It has a different set of problems from coal, but it has problems all the same. Therefore, it is only one part of the solution to climate change. It should not be seen as the end all be all. Therefore, it is vital for people to only see natural gas as a transition fuel from coal to renewable energy. People need to remember that renewable energy means that we can never run out. No one can say that about coal or even natural gas. Renewable energy is the only long-term way to reduce carbon emissions before the impacts of climate change become more extreme, and people are less able to adapt. Renewable energy is also economically crucial to the United States. Renewable energy technology is the technology of the future. If the United States wants to maintain at the forefront of the world economy, it will have to invest in renewable energy. And, if we want to maintain the world, we need to transition to renewable energy sooner rather than later.



[1] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/06/extreme-weather-climate-timeline-infographic_n_1861334.html

[2] http://content.usatoday.com/communities/sciencefair/post/2010/06/scientists-overwhelmingly-believe-in-man-made-climate-change/1#.UFkdQY45s21

[4] http://green.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/08/17/a-20-year-low-in-u-s-carbon-emissions/

[5] http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/ezra-klein/wp/2012/09/14/why-the-recent-plunge-in-u-s-carbon-emissions-may-not-last/

[6] http://www.seas.harvard.edu/news-events/press-releases/carbon-emissions-natural-gas

[7] http://www.seas.harvard.edu/news-events/press-releases/carbon-emissions-natural-gas

[8] http://www.ucsusa.org/clean_energy/our-energy-choices/coal-and-other-fossil-fuels/how-natural-gas-works.html

Growing Dirty: Why China’s Energy Boom is America’s Problem

by Olivia Shepard

COMMON BUT DIFFERENTIATED

In 1992 at the United Nations Rio Earth Summit, government representatives from 255 countries met to address a long list of climate and energy problems. They penned the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, which introduced the concept of Common but Differentiated Responsibility (CBDR) stating that,

“The developed countries acknowledge the responsibility that they bear in the international pursuit of sustainable development in view of the pressures their societies place on the global environment and of the technologies and financial resources they command.”

The concept of CBDR suggests that developed countries, which in 1992 were emitting close to 80% of global CO2, have a mitigation responsibility proportional to their emissions. The logical extension of this being that developing countries are less to blame and thus essentially given a free pass to “grow dirty” as we, the United States, once did. But do these developing countries really have a right to their own Industrial Revolutions? On the one hand, it is unfair to handicap the growth of developing countries with emissions-based constraints that developed countries grew without, but on the other, it is neither logical nor moral to allow developing countries to knowingly ignore climate change simply for the sake of equality.

CHINA’S RAPID RISE

With no other country is the concept of CBDR more controversial than with China. While technically still a developing nation, in the past year China has surpassed the United States not only as the country with the largest economy, but also as the number one global emitter of greenhouse gases. These two superlatives are not unrelated either; they are linked through energy intensity, a measure of energy use per GDP. China’s energy intensity is 50% greater than the United States, so even if the US and Chinese economies were growing at the same rate, China would see a 1.5 times greater increase in greenhouse gas emission than the US. But the Chinese GDP is growing approximately ten times faster than that of the United States. Due to this rapid growth in GDP, even if China is able to meet its five-year plan to reduce energy intensity by 16% before 2015, it will still experience a net increase in greenhouse gas emissions. That is the one-two punch of growth coupled with high energy intensity. The fact that China emits more greenhouse gas per unit of GDP than any other country in the world and also has the largest, fastest growing GDP in the world means that despite CBDR, China must play a leading role in mitigating climate change. Yet China is resisting pressure from the United Nations to commit to an emissions target, which they claim will cause harmful economic shocks. China has little incentive to control emissions.

SINO-AMERICAN RELATIONS

While China avoids taking on greenhouse gas reduction obligations, the United States is reluctant to commit to United Nations imposed regulations unless all major emitters (not just developed countries) sign on as well. US law makers want to avoid “free riders” who benefit from US emissions reduction without contributing to the reduction themselves. In addition, if the US were to set an emissions goal without Chinese reciprocation, this would provide China with an unfair advantage in global trade. The Chinese-American political landscape is a complicated diplomacy game with plenty more facets than just the energy issue. Key to China’s recent growth is its reliance on trade with the US. China’s overall trade surplus in 2011 was $155.1 billion, but against the United States alone for the same year it was $272.3 billion, or 175.6% of the total surplus.

SOLAR AND WIND SUBSIDIES

Ironically, one of the largest growing categories of imports from China to the US are solar panels. Thus to some extent, China’s dirty growth (70% of its fuel supply comes from coal, as compared to 23% from coal in the US), actually enables clean energy infrastructure in America. In order to curb their trade deficit, last May the United States imposed an anti-dumping tariff on 31% of Chinese-made solar cells. Dumping refers to selling goods to a foreign country at a price lower than would be charged for the same goods domestically. Before the tariff, China dominated half the American market. The US hopes that the tariff will strengthen the domestic solar market, giving America a chance to compete. While beneficial to the US, the new tariff is a point of concern for China (and for other foreign countries with large solar markets such as Canada) since it will shrink trade in the global solar market and increase prices. A decrease in sales will reduce jobs as well, since about half the jobs provided by the solar sector are in installation. There is also tension regarding Sino-American competition in other renewable energy markets as well. Because the Chinese government provides large subsidies for wind turbine production, the US has trouble competing.

GOOD FOR THE EARTH GOOD FOR THE ECONOMY

The tariffs implemented by the United States on Chinese renewable infrastructure such as solar cells and wind turbines are put in place to protect the American market. China can produce and sell these goods much cheaper than can the US so imposing the tariffs allows America to compete. But rising prices also means less consumption of solar panels and wind turbines and therefore less mitigation of greenhouse gases. So what can we do to overcome this tug-of-war between the environment and the economy? Therein lies the solution to entirety of the global energy crisis. The best solution will be both economically and environmentally advantageous. At this point, it is not likely that there will be one supremely effective mitigation strategy. Instead, relief will come from a confluence of methods. A free market approach will not be enough to jump-start many renewable energy industries. One potential idea could be a reinforcing structure whereby energy technology and infrastructure can be traded. If China continues to be a supplier of solar and wind energy systems to the US, the US can purchase these in capital investments in Chinese renewable projects to be implemented in China, thereby helping China as we help ourselves.

Sources

Bradsher, Keith and Diane Cardwell. U.S. Slaps High Tariffs on Chinese Solar Panels. The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/18/business/energy-environment/us-slaps-tariffs-on-chinese-solar-panels.html?pagewanted=all&_moc.semityn.www. May 17, 2012.

Bradsher, Keith. Chinese Data Mask Depth of Slowdown, Executives Say. The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/23/business/global/chinese-data-said-to-be-manipulated-understating-its-slowdown.html?pagewanted=all. June 22, 2012.

Bullis, Kevin. The Chinese Solar Machine. The Technology Review. http://www.technologyreview.com/featured-story/426393/the-chinese-solar-machine/. January 2012.

Chang, Gordon G. China is 175.6% Dependent on the U.S. http://www.forbes.com/sites/gordonchang/2012/01/22/china-is-175-6-dependent-on-the-u-s/. January 22, 2011.

Leggett, Jane A. China’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Mitigation Policies. Congressional Research Service. http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/row/R41919.pdf. July 18, 2011.

United States Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. The Real Story Behind China’s Energy Policy and What America Can Learn From It. http://epw.senate.gov/public/index.cfm?FuseAction=Files.View&FileStore_id=f29ee5f7-c9f5-46ca-9500-0f10b27f41ed. December 8, 2010

Older posts